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Wildfires should lead to FEMA funding, lawmakers say

A helicopter makes a water drop on a hotspot over a hill near Thousand Oaks, Calif., last May. (Associated Press)
A helicopter makes a water drop on a hotspot over a hill near Thousand Oaks, Calif., last May. (Associated Press)

BOISE – Catastrophic wildfires should be no less a priority for federal funds than hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or other natural disasters, lawmakers from Oregon and Idaho said Monday.

They joined Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter to tout a bipartisan effort to change how the nation pays for those costs: to tap disaster funds instead of draining fire-prevention accounts when fires get too big.

Jewell said in 2013, firefighting costs exceeded the budget by half a billion dollars. That meant agencies had to dip into prevention and remediation funds to make up the difference, creating even worse fire risk by skipping projects that could prevent future fires.

“It’s time for a fresh approach,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.

Bipartisan legislation now moving through Congress and also included in President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget proposal would direct that when firefighting costs reach 70 percent of the 10-year average, agencies could dip into the government’s fund for battling natural disasters such as hurricanes.

Jewell said 1 percent of wildfires account for 30 percent of the firefighting costs because they’re the biggest and most destructive. The idea is that those would be covered by Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funds, which now are capped at $2.6 billion. “It’s fully expected that we can work well within that cap,” she said.

Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho, and Democratic Sens. Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon worked together on the legislation; Republican Reps. Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson of Idaho have introduced a companion bill in the House.

“Wildfires are being allowed to become disasters, and they should be funded through the disaster fund,” Risch said at a news conference at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. “If we more effectively manage our lands, fewer fires will become disasters.”

Restoration work includes thinning overgrown forests, clearing underbrush and removing trees that have been attacked by insects and are more fire-prone. Jewell noted that firefighting costs have exceeded budgets in eight of the past 10 years.

Some opponents worry the proposal will lead to a budget increase for fighting wildfires.

But the lawmakers said the government already is spending money each year to suppress disastrous wildfires, and this proposal adds no new funds. “The reality is that we always pay for the fires anyway,” Wyden said.

National Interagency Fire Center experts predict a busy wildfire season in the next three months in Southern California, New Mexico and Arizona, expanding into Northern California and southern Oregon later in the year.

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